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[SFFWRTCHT] Another Chat With Author Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Of America. Her debut novel, Shades Of Milk and Honey, released by Tor in 2011 started her historical fantasy series The Glamour Histories , and the follow up, Glamour In Glass, released on Tuesday. Several more books in the series are forthcoming.  A gifted voice artist and puppeteer, she frequently records audio books and speaks at Cons and conferences on readings and voice. She has served as Art Director for magazines including Weird Tales and is an avid collector of typewriters and is preparing to move this month from Portland, Oregon to Chicago. A past Hugo winner for her short story “For Want of A Nail” in 2011, she’s nominated this year for her work with the podcast  “Writing Excuses.” Her work has appeared in Year’s Best anthologies, Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons, Asimov’s and Daily Science Fiction, amongst other places. You can find her active online as @maryrobinette on Twitter, on Facebook or via her website at  This is her second chat with us. To read the earlier interview, go to:

SFFWRTCHT: Mary, I really enjoyed Glamour In Glass. You’ve talked about David Brin giving you an idea that was a catalyst for this story. Please tell us a little how it came about.

Mary Robinette Kowal: In Shades Of Milk and Honey, I tried to fit Fantasy into a Jane Austen plot mold. For Glamour In Glass, I wanted to explore the rest of the world.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did your fascination with the Regency period come from?  For those unfamiliar with the term, the Regency period is the period of Napoleon’s conquering France and pre-Victorian.

MRK: I’ve long been a fan of Jane Austen. It was a time of great social change. But I also I love the pretty clothes.

SFFWRTCHT: And the manners are very structured & interesting. In fact, the conflict between English & French manners is a part of this story. How much research did you do on that and the historical stuff? I imagine you researched Napolean’s army, locations, Belgium, France, etc.

MRK: It was huge for this. I was familiar with the English Regency, but the French Empire is a different thing. I started with a lot of general reading to grasp differences. Read Dancing into Battle: The Social History of Waterloo. From there, I did spot research on things that were specific to the plot. I still got stuff wrong though.

SFFWRTCHT: In her defense, a few of the things that are wrong are due to some changes not being incorporated into the first run of the novel after editing, including the novel’s intended first line. So these first editions are going to become quite the collector’s items. That aside, the history she molds into the story adds real depth and poignancy this time around. It’s very well handled for tension. In addition to the historical research, what fiction from the period, besides Austen, did you read?

MRK: Almost none. I read a lot of journals, letters, and newspapers. I’m reading Mr. Midshipman Easy now.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you outline the entire book before sitting down to write? How detailed are your outlines?

MRK: Yes, I outlined the whole thing first. I think of it like the rough sketch before a painting. Some parts are very detailed, including dialogue. Some say, “Something bad happens. Develops character.”

SFFWRTCHT: Did you do all the research before writing then or much of it as it came up in the outline?

MRK: A mix. I try to have a broad understanding of the period first. I look up details, like how a dress laces, as needed.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you write in Scrivener, word? With music? What are some tools you use?

MRK: I wrote Glamour In Glass in OpenOffice. To silence. Mostly on the subway or in a moving truck. Seriously. I was busy. I use Scrivener now, and quite like it. I also use Google Calendar to keep track of the plot in “real time.” When I started using Google Calendar, it allowed me to use 1815. Now, it won’t go back as far.

SFFWRTCHT: You employ comedy, action, romance and magic in these Glamour Histories books. Which is the hardest to write?

MRK: Action. At least for me. It requires so much clarity, or people get lost. At the same time, you can’t slow down.

SFFWRTCHT: What do you do in terms of different speech patterns, cadences, manner of address?

MRK: I created a Jane Austen spellcheck dictionary that flagged words she didn’t use. Then I looked those up to see if they existed in 1815. If not, I looked for an alternative that a modern reader would understand. It’s easier than it sounds. Grab the complete works off project Gutenberg. There’s a web-thingie to make a list of unique words. Use that as your spellcheck dictionary.

SFFWRTCHT: What are examples of words you needed alternatives for? Can you remember any?

MRK: Things like “knowledgable” which existed, but changed meaning. Here’s a list of words I cut:

SFFWRTCHT: If the cadences of spoken language are slower (in hist. fantasy) is the pacing by necessity slower too?

MRK: They really aren’t slower in general. People can have the same rapid fire conversations then as now. Parts, sure but that’s the story, not the language. The action scenes — and there are some — are very fast-paced.

SFFWRTCHT: Yes, they are. I enjoyed those scenes. You keep pretty detailed lists when writing. For example, last year at Rainforest Writer’s Village, you showed me a list of regency names, character names, etc. What value are those tools?

MRK: I actually totally cheat on Regency names. There’s a great website with a list.

SFFWRTCHT: There are two more books coming in the series. Did you plan a certain number of books or do you keep adding?

MRK: Each book is written to be a standalone with a longer character arc. I love the world and have more stories I want to tell.

SFFWRTCHT: What are the titles of the next books? You turned the third one in recently, correct? Or was that number four?

MRK: Book three is Without a Summer set in 1816, and Book four is Valour and Vanity set in 1817.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any plans to write other genres or series any time soon?  Anything you can say about those? 

MRK: I write all over the map in my short fiction. With long form, we’re sticking to historical fantasy for now.  We’re shopping a novel set in 1907 with a different magic system. It’s called Passing Fair. Elevator pitch: A young black actress is using magic to pass as white. Murder, political intrigue, inter-racial romance and Vaudeville.

SFFWRTCHT: Without spoilers, how much does the history of your story differ from actual world history?

MRK: in Glamour in Glass, not much. I want to write more books and need to avoid history too much. It’s a balancing act. Something does change, but I think the timestream will adjust.

SFFWRTCHT: What was your biggest challenge with writing Glamour in Glass? How did you overcome it?

MRK: Writing a romance about a married couple, without having them break up for stupid reasons. I looked at other stresses.

SFFWRTCHT: Is it tougher to do historical fantasy in short story or novel length? Any specific challenges?

MRK: It’s about the same, for me. I don’t get as deep into the history, but that’s true of any world building in short form.

SFFWRTCHT: So let’s talk about SFWA. What made you decide to run for Vice President?

MRK: I was already secretary and it was the only way to get John Scalzi to run for office. Also, I feel that SFWA can do good.  It’s a volunteer run organization and I thought it was important to step up to the plate. Else I couldn’t complain.

SFFWRTCHT: So you’re just doing this to set them up for your complaints? Very sneaky!  What’s the value of SFWA for writers, especially up and coming writers?

MRK: There are two areas: the personal and the societal. Personal is things like connections, advice, etc. Societal is more important. Things an organization can do that an individual can’t. Like Google book settlement. I actually wrote a post over at SFWA’s website that goes into more detail. But the best way to get involved is to volunteer! We work with non-member volunteers all the time.

SFFWRTCHT: What have you learned from serving in SFWA office?

MRK: From serving in SFWA office, I learned lots about contract, copyright, and the publishing business. Also, how to herd cats.

SFFWRTCHT: Ah yes, a good talent for writers. Well, you’re launching on a book tour soon. You’ve done some great blog posts on book promotion. How do book tours work when a publisher sponsors them? What’s required of you? What do they take charge of?

MRK: I funded my 1st book tour. This one is like magic. They arrange transportation, hotel, and bookstores. I just show up. For locations, you can see my events on my website. . Also, I’m moving to Chicago at the end of April. If you are on the route, I’ll stop and sign books.

SFFWRTCHT: What are the things which you feel have worked best in promoting your books?

MRK: Shaking hands with booksellers. Those people sell more books for me than anything else I do.

SFFWRTCHT: What can every writer do regularly to build their books’ profile/awareness without being obnoxious?

MRK: Be friendly. It’s about building relationships. Be helpful. Ask people about what they are working on, first. And be interested, not just patient. Remember the wonder. If you can retain that sense of “OMG! This is amazing that I sold/published/did this.” People will be charmed and excited for you. Have a change of topic prepared, so you don’t spend the entire day talking about yourself. Have an educational component in there. Like I’m doing right now… Seriously, if you can talk about how you got to the place you are at, so that other people can try the same path, folks like that. Don’t harp on it. Make your announcement once at the beginning of awards season and once as nominations wind down. Don’t say “Vote for me!” It sounds desperate. All you need to do is let people know the work exists. Talk about other and multiple things you are passionate about. Otherwise, people will avoid you because you only talk about one topic. Promote other people. First of all, it’s nice. Second, it will make people think you are nice, even if you are cold-blooded bastard. Here’s a long-form answer with examples.

SFFWRTCHT: How has joining the Writing Excuses crew influenced your work?

MRK: Writing Excuses makes me think. We often pick topics based on something we are struggling with. So helpful.

SFFWRTCHT: How did your joining Writing Excuses come about? Do you just show up? Help produce/plan?

MRK: They secretly auditioned me on my 1st episode. Later, they just asked if I wanted to be on. I said Yes.

SFFWRTCHT: How sneaky of them. What are the goals for that podcast?

MRK: We try to help aspiring writers understand specific areas of craft in 15 minute chunks.

SFFWRTCHT: So each episode is 15 minutes or you do several topics for 15 minutes each?

MRK: Both, actually. Sometimes we do one topic. Sometimes we do “microcasts” with quick answers.

SFFWRTCHT: Writing Excuses can be found at I know you said you like lots of genres; if the historical fantasy hadn’t caught on, what genre would you have picked?

MRK: Whichever one sold first? Honestly? I love all fiction. It’s just that the first novel to sell was historic fantasy. So… I’m building my audience. I feed my itch for other genres withshort fiction. I love the broad spectrum of speculative fiction. Easier to say which I wouldn’t. I don’t read horror, so probably not that. Probably not military SF. Otherwise? All fair game. Written novels: SF murder/mystery; YA fantasy; an urban fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: What?! No futuristic Jane and Vincent using glamour to fight fourth generation warfare? Maybe Myke Cole can write that…What’s the best writing advice you ever got? What’s the worst?

MRK: The best was write something you want to read. The worst  was don’t get an agent.

SFFWRTCHT: Good advice. What projects do you have coming up we can look forward to besides the novels?

MRK: In September, there’s a short in “Willful Improriety” and a novellette that I can’t tell details about. But it’s cool. I already mentioned Passing Fair. I’m working on two science fiction shorts and one fantasy short. Plus an SF audio novellette.

FUN FACT: The blurb by the Jane Austen Centre on the backside of the dust jacket of Glamour in Glass is from a review of Shades of Milk and Honey written by GFTW editor John Ottinger III and republished with permission by the Centre.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids is coming soon from Delabarre Publishing along with the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited both novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where his upcoming guests include Robert J. Sawyer. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb